Review – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth DickinsonThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Received to review via Netgalley and a won proof copy

I first heard of this via Kameron Hurley’s enthusiastic response on Twitter, and requested it pretty much based on that. It was only later that I read critical reviews/thoughts, like Foz Meadows’ and Liz Bourke’s, and while it made me feel a little more wary, I decided I was going to give it a go anyway. And I did, and to me, that central thesis that this is a book with a message, “Homophobia Is Bad”, which brings the message across by all queer people being unhappy… isn’t true. Nobody here “suffer[s] unbearably because of their orientation”, but because of the imperialist, colonial reaction to their sexual orientation.

It’s not a Queer Tragedy story where the main character is gay and struggling. She’s not struggling because she’s gay. She’s struggling because the Empire of Masks believes that the customs of her homeland are wrong, she disagrees, and she is determined to fight it at whatever cost. Everything that happens to her is her choice. It would be more of a Queer Tragedy if she was eventually manoeuvred into the position she’s in at the end of the novel, if it wasn’t her choice. But it is. And I don’t think this is saying there’s no hope for Baru, either; yes, she has done some terrible things, betrayed every cause except the one closest to her heart. But she’s holding onto that. She’s not broken. She does not accept a gilded cage.

As for “the evil empire is too evil” criticisms… well. The British Empire used all these methods to assimilate colonies. Maybe not at the same time, in the same place, but they did. The issue is not whether those things are going on, but control of the information: these things do look very bad to us now, partly because we see them in our past and know the harm they caused, partly because we get a privileged view. If the Masquerade don’t publicise those things are happening, people might know that some of it is going on. They can write it off to bad management, to unfair application of policies, to a particular person being corrupted — rather than seeing it as a whole, a pattern, that defines the empire. That’s pretty clearly shown to be in effect here, as far as I can see. We see the Empire for what it is, and so does Baru with her carefully split and guarded identity, but just because we as readers can doesn’t mean we would’ve in real life when these things occurred.

And, a thought that I suspect is very uncomfortable for a lot of people, we don’t now. You can ignore an awful lot of shit when you’re not the one who directly faces it.

Anyway. Going back to just the story — I loved it. It’s a painful, wrenching story, and yes, it goes through the dark side of capitalism and colonialism a lot. It explores what one person has to do, has to change, to try and make a difference, and the pain it brings them. It’s really well written: this is a story with an accountant at the centre, as the hero, and yet her machinations are still as fascinating as any duel. It also deals with people being people: complex, split in their loyalties, unpredictable. Driven by emotion. I believed in every character here, and that they thought they were the hero of their own story.

I recommend it. Sending the proof copy to my sister ASAP, though I suspect she may kill me when she reads the end.

Rating: 5/5

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12 thoughts on “Review – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

  1. Yes. Im curious about it, in part because of all the different opinions. That makes me want to read it so I can see what I think. On the other hand it sounds depressing and right now I’m not up for that. Which makes me less inclined.

    • I didn’t find it depressing. I found it… I don’t know, I found myself recognising a lot of moments in the colonisation and relating them to Wales, to my life. It’s definitely a difficult one, though.

  2. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to ascertain, is it challenging in a way that I will end up feeling glad to have read it or chalenging in a way that leaves

  3. me thinking everything is awful and why do I get up in the morning anyway? Sometimes people talk about stuff in a way that makes it hard for me to figure which of the two they are talking about. And of course some of that is entirely personal anyway.

    • I think this one might be a very personal one, depending on experiences with queerness and colonialism and just your own temperament. I’d err on the side of not reading it if you’re not up for something potentially depressing. For me, though, I liked that the Masquerade could not beat Baru, that she beat them at their own game. It comes at a cost for her, but I like that no matter what they do, she holds to her resolve.

        • Yes. They could’ve trapped her if she’d given in for the sake of Tain Hu. She refused the bait. It’s morally a mess, but she didn’t let them play her. Now she’s in their game and they have no strategy to check her.

          • My reply will get a little spoilery….

            Probably in the sequels she will harm the empire, but in this book, she very emphatically didn’t. She’s in their game, yes, and she’s internally sworn absolute defiance and that she will bring down the empire and destroy it for what it made her do, but… ultimately, she has served the empire extremely well, fulfilled all its desires, and even as part of the council, she is just one actor among several.

            She may well succeed in the sequels (which would, after all, be satisfying to read), but at the point where this book ends, she is still just one player in a huge, complex, all-powerful game. She may very well fail.

            As for her homeland, it’s probably been irreversibly changed, her culture is gone by the time she rises to a position where she might be able to affect anything.

            All in all, I’m not sure at all that she has succeeded, or that she will succeed, or that she beat them at their own game. I think this might very well be a series of books about internally defiant or doubt-filled people propping up a system, each checked by the others, all doing unforgiveable things because they don’t think their moment is right and because they never get to a point where they can topple it.

            It might be a series about the banality of evil. All these bureaucrats, no different from those in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia or any dictatorship, convinced they may one day make everything better, if only they play everyone at their own game. Too caught up in the immediate objectives to ever change the big picture.

            I loved the book, but it very definitely is a great tragedy, and it might be the entire series about Falcrest will be remorselessly bleak and tragic, an essay on the futility of trying to change anything, from inside or through defiance from outside…

            • It is a tragedy, yes, but it’s not a “queer tragedy” of the sort people are complaining about — where queer people suffer just for being queer and end up dead or closeted forever. It’s practically a genre unto itself and I don’t think this book belongs.

              Besides, I don’t think it matters whether she fails or not. She’s held to her ideal and let nothing compromise it. Her victory is her integrity.

              (The author’s said he thinks Baru will get a chance to be happy, which helps my assessment. Also the fact that Welsh is a post-colonial identity so I can map a lot of my feelings onto Baru probably helps.)

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